The Winter of 2013-2014: What Happened to Global Warming?

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Those of you who live in the U.S. Northeast, Midwest, and especially the Great Lakes region, endured a long and harsh winter this past year. You probably heard this phrase many times in recent months: 'What happened to global warming?' It’s hard to imagine a warming world when you’ve just lived through one of the coldest winters you can remember. As it turns out, however, other parts of the world lived through the warmest winter in recent memory.

I started writing this article on my way from Michigan to Alaska, where LimnoTech is working with other scientists on a National Science Foundation (NSF) project to monitor the impacts of climate change on Arctic lakes. At that time in Anchorage, they had just hit a record high temperature of 68°F for May 3. In contrast, it was 48°F in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at our home office. Occasional record highs are, of course, “normal,” but for the winter as a whole, Alaska was abnormally warm. Confusing to say the least, but can we make sense of this?

The figure shows a global map of departure-fromnormal air temperatures during the winter of 2013- 14 (December-February), with blue denoting colder and red warmer. You probably recall the numerous visits the U.S. and Canada had this winter from the “polar vortex,” shown by the blue bullseye on the map. These large dips in the jet stream bring incursions of cold air from polar regions—in our case, the Arctic. But in doing so, they generally leave behind warmer conditions in places like Alaska. So while we experienced a cold winter, Alaska was unusually warm. As a result, the Arctic lakes that we’ve been studying near Barrow, Alaska, had about 20-30% thinner lake ice than in previous years. This is in contrast to the Great Lakes, where Lake Superior ice was not only unusually thick and widespread this winter, but was still abundant through April and May; lake temperatures will also continue to be colder than normal well into August.

As is evident on the map, Alaska was not the only region with a warmer-than-normal winter. Much of Europe and eastern Russia were well above normal, as were parts of East Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia. A few other land areas were colder than normal, but when you tally it all up, it turns out that—on a global average—the winter of 2013-14 was 1°F warmer than the 20th-century average. Only six other winters in history have been warmer than 2013-14, and they all occurred after 1997. This means that approximately 96% of the winters on this planet (since 1880) have—on a global average—been colder than this past winter.

So despite the impression you may have gotten from looking in your own backyard, from a global perspective this winter was unusually warm. Therein lies the answer to the question, “What happened to global warming?” It’s still a concern. But it means that we need to think outside our own backyard. In other words, we need to appreciate the difference between current local weather and global climate change. There is a reason, after all, that it’s called “global” warming and not “Michigan” warming. When engaging the public in discussions about climate change, it is often difficult to separate our thoughts about climate from our personal experiences with weather. For comparison’s sake, do any of you remember the winter of 1978-79? If you’re 40 years of age or younger, you probably don’t. I was a 10-year-old kid growing up in Holland, Michigan, and we received a whopping amount of lakeeffect snow that winter. The temperatures were frigid, and the Great Lakes were heavily ice covered, similar to this past winter and spring. As a kid, I thought the snow was great. Although I’m sure all the cold and snow were a hassle for adults, I don’t recall people making much of a fuss, unlike the apocalyptic media stories we read this winter about the polar vortex. After all, this was Michigan, and we were used to it, right?

But maybe that’s part of the problem—we’re no longer accustomed to “normal” winters, because normal is changing. How would a 10-year-old kid or a 30-year-old adult react to this past winter, when they’ve seen nothing like it in their lifetime? Not surprisingly, they might react with shock. They might wonder if our climate is actually getting colder, rather than warmer, and these would be understandable reactions if it weren’t for the fact that we have long-term data to show that winters like the recent one have happened before. In fact, they used to happen regularly. Case in point: The ten coldest global winters on record all occurred before 1914.

The point is that our thoughts, discussions, and actions need to be driven not by individual observations from any particular season or location, but by long-term global data. However you might feel about causality, the data clearly show that climate change and global warming continue to be a concern, and our society, our governments, our businesses, and our researchers need to factor this into our short- and long-term planning.

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